I will never forget that Sunday morning.
On March 15, 2020, as Downing Street was preparing to announce the first national coronavirus blockade in Britain, me and three other women were on the other side of the Atlantic, running to the Port Everglades terminal, Florida.
For a cruise ship terminal that normally reaches up to120,000 passengers embark and disembark in a single day, Port Everglades was a mess. Because? Thousands of passengers were removed from the ships, and all future navigations were canceled, due to growing fear of the coronavirus.
I, and the rest of the women, were in Florida to meet with our partners, who worked as crew on these boats. I myself, a former crew member, was looking forward to the holiday we were about to start: a two-week cruise through South America before flying to my hometown in Colombia and then back to the UK, where he is and we both live.
My partner, like most of the crew, stayed on board. Heading towards the harbor, me and three other women waited to see if we were allowed to join them or at least see our partners before the ship left. Anxiety was heartbreaking: I knew this might be my only chance to see him in a long time. Joining that boat seemed like our only chance and I was left with that little piece of hope with everything I had.
After much discussion between the ship’s management, the captain and the port authorities, we were allowed to board and, on leaving the ship, we hugged tears as if we had been separated for years. What we didn’t realize then was that, like about 80,000 crew members around the world, we would soon be trapped in the sea. For months.
The first days were a bliss.
On a cruise suddenly without its usual thousands of passengers, we were all able to enjoy the spaces normally reserved for guests. Basketball tournaments, scavenger hunts, Zumba classes, the gym and pool filled our days; movie and karaoke our nights.
For the crew, who were used to working mostly ten-hour shifts, seven days a week was a welcome change: there were no longer uniforms and name tags, smiles, and sometimes forced paperwork. Over time, seeing the empty spaces and covered with sheets to protect the furniture, a shadow of what used to become nostalgic. The real forged connections between the crew and the guests were lost.
Despite other cruise shipslive a nightmare, we felt safe and lucky not to have any cases on board. We were convinced that this pandemic would not last long, and in the meantime we could simply see it from the paradise of our floating city. But as the situation evolved around the world, our virgin city was soon caught in turbulence.
As cases shot up around the world, it became apparent that crew members had to be repatriated, with those not needed for a skeletal crew, sent home. With the pause in operations extending beyond what anyone could have anticipated, it only made sense to reduce the amount of staff on board to minimize costs.
It was a logistical nightmare. With more than 900 crew members from more than 50 different countries quickly closing their borders, our happiness quickly turned to despair.
The management on board went to great lengths to keep us happy. All crew members were moved to a single guest cabin, where the goal was to give everyone who was still on board a balcony, or at least a window. The chefs did their best, organizing themed dinners, while the captain tried to cheer us on with daily announcements.
But they could only do so many things. Whatever medium we had invented to entertain ourselves was about to be frustrated by pressure from outside governments who insisted on proving to us that we were free from Covid. As a ship that usually operated in the United States, we were bound by theCDC requirements – this meant that we had to distance ourselves socially, do temperature checks twice a day and wear masks made with pillowcases by the tailors on board. Suddenly, we were only allowed to leave the huts to work or eat, where we would all be left apart.
After weeks of that, still with no positive cases, the chance we had Covid on the boat seemed to be virtually nil. And yet, as we sailed down the Panama Canal to Mexico, looking for a port that would take us and allow us to fly home, we became citizens out of nothing. Flights would be purchased and canceled abruptly without any explanation.
All the members on board felt neglected by our governments. When the American crew was allowed to return home, after weeks of pressuring the media for help, the CDC had strict requirements. Each crew member would travel in private charter aircraft and be transported home in private vehicles, with the company’s legal responsibility in the event that these agreements were breached in any way, even though at the time the United States was not closed and in fact few measures were taken to curb the spread of the virus. The world needed a scapegoat and it looked like the crew members were paying the price. The blame was placed on cruise ships even when some governments also did not know how to deal with the crisisand, as a result, repatriation processes came to a halt.
There is a difference between staying home to stay safe and saving lives and doing so for the sole purpose of proving that we meet the rules for it. We were forced to enter the latter. I remember sitting on my balcony alone, wearing a mask just so the drones coming off the coast of Mexico wouldn’t take pictures that could jeopardize our chance to dock and finally get home.
I lived in that hut for four months, the endless sight of the water surrounding me. We tried to make the most of it with the limited resources we had: our internet connection was slow and unreliable, we didn’t have a Netflix oven or too much fermented dough to entertain ourselves like most people on land. At least my partner and I knew it, we were incredibly lucky to have each other. Most people on board didn’t even have that.
Restrictions, requirements, and lack of government support affected the overall mental health of the crew. Soon, we started hearing about it suicide on other ships, and worrying about ours. Every day, while we did the temperature checks, the staff also performed a mental health check. It was discouraging.
After countless attempts, I was finally able to take over the Colombian consulate in Mexico and purchase a humanitarian flight home, which entailed a high price. I flew from the port of La Paz to Mexico City, where I stayed three nights, and finally to Bogota.
My partner and I said goodbye to tears. After four months constantly in each other’s company, we only had a 24-hour notice to say goodbye.
We were desperately hoping we could be together soon, but we didn’t know when or how this would happen. We had both tried to contact our governments looking for a way to meet on land, but restrictions did not allow it, and my partner still had no news of when he could land. As a member of the essential crew on board, his departure was conditioned by the arrival of his replacement.
I was worried about leaving him alone. I was also scared of the outside world. The ship had been a safe place against the coronavirus and now I had to embark on a four-day journey from a city that had some of the highest cases of the time.
Even today, thousands of crew members continue to do solitary work on ships performing minimal maintenance operations. Many pledge to stay months at a time without going to land just to keep their job.
It took us more than six months to get back together and once again we said goodbye as I am currently back at sea to work, this time without me. We’ve learned to deal with it, but I constantly think about those days and how little has changed a year later.
As a person traveling all over the world to make a living, being locked up at sea was something I never expected, but that boat became my home. When our different nationalities prevented us from assembling that ship it gave us the chance to stay together in the midst of a global pandemic.
If there is any lesson I have learned from this experience and from the pandemic itself, I will never take for granted our ability to cross borders and how quickly it can be taken away from us.
Maria J. Arabia is a freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter at @MariaJArabia
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